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Queen Victoria in the Basement

Dear Mr Chairman,

 

Sir,

 

Yesterday, after I switched on the spotlight so that you could see the Queen properly, you covered your nose so I wanted to explain why there’s a smell.

 

Please, allow me to introduce my good self to you. I’m Benazir Mirza (also known as Aspro), and for ten years now, I’ve been working as guard and caretaker in the basement of our prestigious Lahore Museum. But more than that, I’m a devoted sevadari to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.

 

Sir, I want to tell you everything – how after Partition the Queen was dragged from Charing Cross Road, where she’d sat under the shade of a marble pavilion since 1904, and dumped here in the basement. However, I don’t want to lie and pretend that I haven’t been watching you for many years. I see you every morning when I’m taking my tea break at 11.30 am at Khalid’s kiosk and you drive through the gates of the Museum. You sit at the back, on the left, with your window rolled up. I even know your number plate.

 

‘There goes my boss’s boss in his big car,’ I tell Khalid, and raise my cup to your black Mercedes. Khalid doesn’t bother to look but tells me the same thing every day, ‘What difference does it make to you? Nothing. Are you ever going to ride in that car and go to Chaman for a badam pista ice cream? Never.’

 

He also comments on how you keep coming and going. ‘Your boss’s boss doesn’t do anything except show off.’ I told him an important person like you had many meetings to attend at fancy places like the PC Hotel.

 

‘PC my foot; why are you defending him?’ he said. ‘He isn’t your husband.’

 

Now I’ll speak openly Sir, I’ve often wondered, what if I was married to you, then what? I imagine turning the handle on the door of your polished car and the cool blast from its air-conditioned interior welcoming me, but then my mind goes blank and I get stuck thinking about what next.

 

But I’m getting sidetracked; I don’t want you to have the impression that all I do is stand outside at the kiosk, gossiping and drinking kadak chai. Not at all. If you ask my supervisor, Mr Majid Chacha (who nicknamed me Aspro), he’ll tell you, ever since I joined, I’ve been the most dedicated employee of your team and also the only female. And if you’re wondering why I’m the only one, it’s obvious, Sir, because the Queen needed to be taken care of by a woman, and that too one who could speak English. And who better than me?

 

My routine is simple.

 

7:00 a.m., sharp: Arrive at the Museum and change into uniform.

 

7:10 a.m.: Report for duty to the Armoury in the basement.

 

7:12 a.m.: Switch on all lights. Check site for mischief.

 

7:15 a.m.: (Or later, depends on mischief) Start the Queen’s seva: polish crown, wipe face, dust cobwebs from dress, check for cracks, blemishes.

 

8:00 a.m.: Inspect cabinets, uniforms, ammunition, photographs, letters, poems.

 

8:15 a.m.: Sweep and mop floors, polish cabinets, remove cobwebs.

 

10:15 a.m.: Check spotlights, change bulbs.

 

10:30 a.m.: Switch off all lights. Sit in chair, wait for visitors. Guard the Queen.

 

11:30 a.m.: Tea break.

 

11:45 a.m.: Continue duty.

 

1:30 p.m.: Lunch.

 

2:00 p.m.: Continue duty.

 

4:00 p.m.: Tea break.

 

4:10 p.m.: Continue duty.

 

7:00 p.m.: Close basement door.

 

But my job is not just this. Aside from taking proper care of the Queen, I’m expected to remember everything about her. If anyone asks: who is she? Where did she come from? When? What did she do? What is she famous for? I know all the answers. But it was not like that in the beginning. 

 

When I first joined the Museum, Majid Chacha sent me down to the basement with my uniform, bucket and broom. ‘This is on-the-job learning,’ he said. ‘Did you think someone was going to spoon feed you?’ 

 

Sir, I’ve finished my secondary schooling and I studied hard but I never really knew anything about the Queen except that she was a great Empress. But since joining here I’ve been overhearing conversations and now I can confidently say I’m an expert. My ears are sharp, I can lip-read and these days even my style of speaking English is good. I’ve listened to teachers, tourists, historians, government officials, tour guides and students and they’ve taught me everything I know about the Queen. 

 

Plus, Sir, the voices; they’ve told me all her secrets. 

 

One other thing I wanted to say Sir, was how come yesterday was the first time you came to visit the Queen? I think you’ve never asked: what kind of security does she have? Is the lighting good enough? Does the damp affect her? I know how busy you are, but try to find time to visit us so I can show you everything else in the Armoury: the photographs, uniforms, rifles, guns and ammunition, and the letters. I’ll even recite for you, by heart, the poems written by the soldiers who fought for her. 

 

Mr Chairman, 

 

Sir, 

 

I’m hoping you’ll receive my letter exactly the way I’ve written it, without Majid Chacha reading it and putting red lines through it. 

 

Sir, next time you come, I’ll show you the letters from soldiers who’ve written about the shelling, the cold winter, the loss of their friends. Some letters plea with relatives not to volunteer for the war, others fear they’ll never return home and many ask for drugs to induce fever so they don’t have to return to the trenches. However, mostly, they were like me, loyal, and they write about their duty to the Queen. But it’s not easy.

 

Please don’t get me wrong, Sir, when I first joined the Museum I found it difficult, and only after I started taking naswar (from Khalid) that I became more relaxed. What could I do? Everyone does what they have to, to survive. Don’t you?

 

By the way, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I don’t think you’re married. First and foremost, I’ve checked your hands when you’re rushing in and out of the Museum and I’ve never seen a ring on any of your fingers. Second and more importantly, I’ve never seen a woman in your car. 

 

But frankly speaking Sir, do you know who you remind me of? Dev Anand, the handsome actor in Guide. You’ll remember the story. Raju, a tour guide of ancient caves, falls in love with Rosie, the wife of his archaeologist client. Rosie leaves her husband for Raju but it ends badly for her. Bollywood is always melodramatic and sad, but my story will be different.

 

Before I forget, I wanted to tell you what gives me most joy. When there are five people or more in the basement, I switch on the spotlight so that they can see the Queen properly. Then I go and stand next to her and anyone who comes too close, I tell them to back off; people have no respect, they like to touch the Queen and feel what material she’s made of.  ‘She’s made of bronze. No touching allowed, just keep looking.’ I feel very proud saying this. 

 

Some people move away, but one time a visitor said, ‘There’s no need to be possessive, she doesn’t belong to you.’ 

 

I was shocked, but don’t worry Sir, I’m used it. All kinds of people come here and it’s my duty to protect the Queen. Sometimes I even hear visitors calling her rude names. Then I make myself as tall as possible (because I’m short like the Queen was) and say in a loud voice, ‘Is there a problem? Is everything okay?’ 

 

But most times I let them continue their swearing, because I’m sure if you knew what I know and if you were in my shoes, you’d do the same.

 

Sir, let me clarify, I’m used to sitting in the dark all day. In the beginning I defied Chacha and kept the spotlight on. Then one of the other guards said unless I sat on his lap, he’d report me. I told him, ‘Do what you want, your threats don’t scare me.’ So he complained and Chacha said, ‘Aspro, why are you wasting electricity? Should I deduct the cost from your salary? Are you asking for a torch, Aspro, is that why you’re saying nothing? Or should I give you candles and matches so you can burn down the Museum? What do you want, tell me?’

 

I kept quiet because I’ve learnt Majid Chacha’s pattern of talking – he asks questions but he doesn’t want answers. 

 

And do you know what else Sir, I can tell you’re not like that. That’s why when you entered the basement my heart began pounding. I gathered myself together quickly and put on the spotlight even though you were on your own because you’re a VVIP. I saw how you stood in front of the Queen, covering your mouth and nose with your hanky, coughing and almost choking, with tears rolling down your cheeks. Believe me, I can fully appreciate how emotional you became when you saw her sitting there in the warm, golden glow in the middle of the room. I’ve suspected for many years that you and I are kindred spirits, and your reaction to the Queen happily confirmed it.

 

What I forgot to mention earlier, was that some years ago when I was dusting behind the cabinet of letters, I found some skeletons. When I examined them more closely I realised they must have belonged to at least two rodents. I was stunned to see how strong and delicate their bones were, but I was even more surprised that in all these years I’d never discovered them. 

 

When I told Khalid the basement had rats he said, ‘No big deal. In Lahore every kiosk has at least sixty rats.’ Then he pointed to the row of stalls next to him, ‘Ask anyone.’ 

 

But still, I couldn’t help wondering: how many decades had the rats been hiding behind the cupboards and why had I not found them before? I took some old newspaper, laid the skeletons in it and hid them. I decided I was not going to throw them away because I felt they had a purpose, even though at the time I did not know what that was. But when it dawned on me, I borrowed some tools from Maintenance, drilled a small hole in each of the bones, put a string through them and made a necklace. I hung this around the Queen’s neck and arranged it nicely on her lace collar.

 

‘Dhekho,’ I told her. ‘Just see how instead of the Kohinoor today you’re wearing a bones garland. Do you like your chooha haadi necklace?’ She smiled her usual smile and said nothing. 

 

You must wondering why I’m describing everything in so much detail, but I’m coming to that, Sir.

 

It feels like such a long time ago when I first joined the Museum and I can’t deny that in the beginning I used to complain all the time. But if you scan my list, you’ll see it’s not unreasonable.

 

First, my complaint Number 1: the Armoury smells. Chacha hasn’t been down to the basement in ten years so he doesn’t believe me and starts shouting, ‘What should I do, Aspro? Tell me, should I leave my desk and do your work and will you sit here, in my chair, and do mine?’

 

Number 2: the Armoury is very cold and there is zero heating in winter. In the monsoon season, dampness and mould irritates my throat, and during the summer when it’s too hot, I feel dizziness. I told Chacha and he said, ‘What do you expect, Aspro? You think the Museum belongs to your grandfather so you can make all kinds of demands?’ 

 

Then 3: I’m not allowed to keep any lights on, so the Queen and I are in the dark the whole day, except when five or more visitors come at the same time, or if there is a VVIP, like yourself.

 

4: I’ve been sitting on same chair for 10 years, the cushion is torn, the chair is broken. Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. Chacha said, ‘Aspro, are you telling me you don’t like your chair and you want to stand the whole day? Is that what you’re implying? Do you think the Museum has a budget for basement furniture?’ 

 

Complaint 5 is important: in the Armoury there’s no one to talk to except the Queen. I get very lonely. Chacha said, ‘Did you come to the Museum to make friends? Am I paying your salary for you to be entertained? Do you want me to say I’m your friend? What do you want, Aspro?’ 

 

Complaint 6: rats. They can be so big, like cats, but with two, big, sharp teeth in the front. If you try stretching out your arm and measure from your elbow to the tip of your fingers, you’ll have an estimate of their size. 

 

Sir, that was the first time I picked up my courage and explained to Chacha about the mischief; how every night the vermin came out of the sewage pipes in the basement just to taunt the Queen. But he wasn’t prepared to listen and became irritated, ‘Can’t you see I’m busy, Aspro? Do you think I’m interested in your stories about rodents? Why do you keep talking nonsense?’ I mentioned the voices and he said, ‘Go away Aspro, leave me in peace. Just looking at your miserable face gives me a headache.’

 

7: No window in basement. I told Khalid that sometimes I feel gabrahat and claustrophobia because there’s no light or fresh air. He put three sugars in my tea instead of two and said, ‘Do what you need to do.’ I had no idea what he meant but I tried to think of my options and came up with zero. As usual Chacha had many questions when I told him. ‘Do I look like an architect? Do you think I’m made of gold? Why do you like making me depressed?’ And he opened his drawer, took two Aspros and swallowed them with water. 

 

I’ve got a confession to make, Sir. Sometimes, after polishing her crown, I slap the Queen a few times. First her right cheek, then her left, and then, if I’m very angry, right again. And on days when I’m very, very angry, I just get up from my chair and give her a few more thappads. Then I whisper in her ear, ‘You deserve it; you thief and murderer. Call yourself a Queen – what type are you? You sent all those young men to die for you, didn’t you?’ One slap. ‘You stole our diamond?’ Another slap. Then I swear at her. I won’t offend you and write the words here, because you’re a VVIP, but I know even if I curse in Urdu, the Queen knows exactly what I mean. ‘Smile all you want, Maharani Victoria,’ I tell her, ‘But no one knows your secrets better than me and you’ve got no choice, you’re stuck here with me.’ 

 

Sir, don’t judge me, because I can guarantee, if you knew what I know, and you had the opportunity in front of you all day, you’d do the same. 

 

Not a week goes by when I don’t tell Khalid, ‘It’s not easy taking care of Queen Victoria.’ But when he’s in a bad mood he says, ‘Goli maar Rani ko,’ and then I know he hasn’t been listening to anything I’ve said, and the last thing I’ll ever do is shoot my Queen.

 

However, Sir, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that many times the voices goad me. ‘Smash her face,’ they plead. ‘Maro, maro rani ko, break her down, grind her to dust.’ And it makes me want to rush to Maintenance and ask for a hammer. But then I sniff some naswar and remind myself, ‘Be patient, there’s a time for everything.’ 

 

Sir, please don’t pretend you don’t know whose voices they are. The soldiers left India in their cotton khakis and fought in the trenches during winter in those same uniforms and many died of cold and frostbite. Exactly like me Sir, I wear the same uniform in every season and one night during winter when I forgot my coat it was eaten by the rats. 

 

I told Chacha about it. ‘Do you think the Museum is a charity? Today coat, tomorrow shoes and then what? Are you telling me I should buy you a new wardrobe? Aspro, explain to me: why do you come to my office to disturb my peace?’

 

Sir, one other thing is true. The way I learned everything on the job, the same way the soldiers were not trained for a big war. And when the British soldiers went home on leave, the Indians couldn’t, because the journey was long and there were no ships to take them. They worked without a break for four years. Sir, if you check my record you’ll see I’ve been on duty for ten years flat without taking a single day off. 

 

Chacha says, ‘What do you want me to do, Aspro? Should I cancel my Sunday and go and sit in your chair? Why do you need leave? You’re not married, no husband, no children;  so why?’

 

Mr Chairman, 

 

Sir, 

 

This much I am certain about: All creatures great and small are important; Queen, soldiers, rats, me, and you. 

 

But Sir, many times I wonder where did so many rats come from? I have some theories which I shared with Chacha, but he dismissed them. 

 

‘Next time, before you come to see me, ask yourself, how many Aspros will Chacha need after hearing your story?’

 

These are my thoughts, Sir: one, that the rats were bred on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, brought to Lahore via Peshawar on trucks and then released into the sewage system to terrorise us. Another possibility: the super-size rats came in the luggage of refugees fleeing a military operation in the tribal belt. Khalid agreed with me, ‘You can’t trust Americans or refugees,’ he said. ‘We don’t understand where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through or what they’re capable of.’ 

 

Sir, I got both these ideas after listening to the radio at Khalid’s kiosk.  

 

But the main thing that keeps coming back to me is how huge the rats are. It was only after I’d been alone in the basement for two months, one winter, and we’d had no visitors, and all I’d heard was the pipe dripping and footsteps in the rooms above me, when everything made sense.  

 

Sir, last week when I was standing near the Museum entrance, with a gunny sack of rat poison, I saw you entering your car. I wanted to stop you and tell you right then and there that I wasn’t happy about it, that I didn’t like finding the rats dead in the morning, lying with their necks twisted in unnatural positions. But you moved too fast and I couldn’t stop you.

 

Anyway Sir, I didn’t finish telling you that I let the Queen wear her bones garland for two months. It was that winter when no one visited the basement so I didn’t get a chance to explain to anyone about it and also when I started hearing knocking on the walls, scratching under the floorboards, and the voices wailing and crying.  

 

I told Khalid about it when I was taking my tea. ‘Stop your baqwas, do you want to be sacked?’ 

 

I was surprised he said that. ‘Yaar, how can I lose my job for defending my history?’ 

 

He told me he didn’t like my chatter about rats or voices. ‘Talking about them attracts them,’ he said. ‘Ignore them, and they’ll disappear.’ 

 

But it’s not like that, is it? Voices can’t just disappear. They are there because they are unhappy.

 

My dear Mr Chairman, 

 

You and I have been working at the Museum in our same jobs for almost ten years. You must have been a topper at school so I’m sure you must be getting a regular bonus. One thing I know for sure is that you’ll never work in a basement. And another thing I’m certain of is that you’ll never find me in an office, because I’m very confident I’ll never be fed up of looking after the Queen.

 

I don’t know why no one understands; not even my mother who shouts all the time: ‘I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve a daughter like you; you’ve been bringing the same salary for ten years and never got a promotion. No wonder no one’s interested in marrying you; you come home smelling of mould and talking about rats.’ 

 

But I never answer back because I don’t care for money and I’m not interested in marriage – what if my husband tells me to stop working? I don’t want anyone else looking after my Queen. 

 

Sir, this is another reason why I know you and I will have a good understanding.

 

The other thing is, no one pressurised me to work here, just like no one forced the Indians to join the army. They did it willingly, same as me, for a uniform, three meals a day and a pay of eleven rupees. What more can I say? We starve or survive – sometimes we die.

 

However, Sir, I’m sure you’ll agree, life is easier when you have a purpose. 

 

Anyway, I asked Khalid if he knew what he wanted from life. He said every night he listens to the midnight radio show when they give motivational talks, and they always say the same thing, ‘Don’t run after money; a real purpose in life is all you need.’ 

 

May I ask Sir, have you found your real purpose? I have. I’ll give you one example. During the Lahore Biennale, I warned the Ma’am who was putting up her art installation about the mischief that happens down here. I told her, ‘You don’t know what happens here at night; Queen Victoria doesn’t like to be disturbed.’ 

 

‘What do you mean?’ she said.

 

I didn’t explain further because I didn’t want to spook her and she’d spent more than 12 hours setting up her exhibit. But sure enough, when she came the next day, she found the wires had been chewed and the speakers were overturned. But this Ma’am, she was very determined. She brought an electrician and they fixed everything. She asked me about the rats and the smell but when I started explaining we were interrupted by a phone call on her mobile and we didn’t get a chance to talk about it again. However, she told me her art display included a music system which would blast the Queen with folk songs and poems, written by the soldiers and their families, blaming the Queen for the millions of deaths she’d caused. 

 

Actually, Sir, to be honest, the exhibition was very good because the Armoury had music and the spotlight was kept on all the time, and every day for three weeks we had visitors coming to see the Queen. Many asked me about the guns, poems, and letters, and how the Queen came to be in the basement. And who better than me to answer those questions? After all, hasn’t it been me, alone, down here, year after year, night and day doing the Queen’s seva? I can say night and day, because even during the day here it’s dark like night.

 

If you ask me Sir, where the voices were during that time, I honestly couldn’t tell you.

 

But did you know Sir, rats have good memories and can recognise faces? I’m certain they could identify the Queen’s, and mine too. 

 

These days the voices are back in full force. I cover my ears and tell them to shut up but they refuse to listen. They keep crying as if their hearts have bullets, and their legs and arms have been severed. 

 

I told Majid Chacha, ‘There are ghosts in the basement. I can hear their terrible chirping – it’s a high-pitched sound you can catch only if you’re very quiet. And every day I’m discovering more and more rats in the basement and I can’t poison enough of them. In the morning I find their corpses everywhere.’ 

 

Majid Chacha became furious. ‘Enough is enough Aspro; do you expect me to believe your lies?’ 

 

I plucked up my courage for the second time and said, ‘It’s impossible for me to lie while I’m on duty with the Queen.’ 

 

But he looked at me like I was stupid. ‘There are no ghosts, Aspro, and if there were, don’t you think it would be the Queen’s? And wouldn’t she be laughing, because she had a good life and died happy with the Kohinoor in her crown?’ 

 

I told him about my terrible headaches. 

 

‘What am I to do, Aspro?’ he said. ‘Should I also become your doctor? Here take this,’ and he opened his drawer, took a box of Aspros and pushed it in my hand.  

 

Sir, you tell me, don’t you think I need a gold medal for my dedicated seva to the Queen? 

 

More importantly, today is the first time Chacha has asked for specific answers. He gave me a few sheets of paper and a pen and said, ‘Make sure you put circles on the correct alphabet in your own handwriting because I want it on record.’ 

 

This is what he asked: 

 

1. Why did the Chairman complain of a bad smell in the basement? Is it because: 

 

a. You don’t keep it clean?

 

b. You’re doing nothing but sleeping all day?

 

c. You don’t know what you’re doing?

 

2. Why did our Chairman complaining of choking? Is it because:

 

a. You’re trying to poison him?

 

b. You want to be sacked?

 

c. You don’t know what you’re doing?

 

3. Should I tell the Chairman it’s all your fault because?

 

a. You’re lazy?

 

b. You’re a complainer?

 

c. You’ve given me headaches ever since you joined the Museum?

 

d. You’re mentally imbalanced?

 

e. You’re taking drugs?

 

f. All of these?

 

Mr Chairman, 

 

Sir, 

 

My answer is simple and straightforward: blame it on the Queen. Ask me and I’ll tell you what other mischief the ghosts are getting up to, aside from leaving a musty smell, bringing the rats and crying in their horrible voices. 

 

And in case you’re curious, if you lift the floorboards around the Queen, you’ll find dozens of cadavers. Not a million, but one day soon, I hope to make it. A rat for every soldier. And did you know Sir, a female rat can mate 500 times in six hours? So you see, anything is possible. 

 

One final thing Sir, please kindly accept the Queen’s bones garland as a gift from me, because what you and her both have in common is my complete loyalty. 

 

Thank you, and yours sincerely,

 

Benazir Mirza 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

’s short stories and essays have been published in PloughsharesThe Mechanics’ Institute Review, and The Massachusetts Review, amongst others. Her non-fiction anthology Period Matters, on menstruation experiences in South Asia, is forthcoming from Pan Macmillan, India. She is currently working on a novel, Days without Sun which is about friendship and survival and follows Amanullah, a traditional maker of sweets in the backstreets of Lahore.

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